Over the last few years, a quiet but powerful alliance in Mississippi of African-American lawmakers, immigrant rights advocates and labor unions had successfully defeated a series of punitive bills aimed at the state's fast-growing Latino and new immigrant population.
But last month, that string of victories came to an end. Gov. Haley Barbour signed into law a bill with the most far-reaching employer sanctions in the United States. David Bacon reports:
The Mississippi bill, SB 2988, requires employers to use an electronic system to verify immigration status, called E-Verify. That system has only recently been developed by the Department of Homeland Security, and by the department's own admission, is not a complete record. Its accuracy is unknown, but by comparison, the Social Security database of U.S. workers, compiled since the 1930s, contains millions of errors.
The Mississippi bill goes much further, however. Employers are absolved from any liability for hiring undocumented workers so long as they use the E-Verify system. But it will become a felony for an undocumented worker to hold a job. Anyone caught "shall be subject to imprisonment in the custody of the Department of Corrections for not less than one (1) year nor more than five (5) years, a fine of not less than one thousand dollars ($1000) nor more than ten thousand dollars ($10,000) or both." Anyone charged with the crime of working without papers will not be eligible for bail.
Behind the scenes, the bill was considered not just a defeat for immigrant rights advocates, but was also a blow to the progressive coalition that was just beginning to blossom in Mississippi:
In the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, University of Mississippi journalism professor Joe Atkins called the law "a new xenophobia ... that threatens once again to lock down the state's borders and resurrect the 'closed society' that once made it the shame of the nation."
According to the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance, the bill got the support of many Democratic state legislators because party leaders "wanted the house to bring out at least one bill dealing with immigration to relieve the political pressure being put on members (i.e. white Democrats), by right-wing forces in their districts. Many Black Caucus members were persuaded to go along. Unfortunately the bill they brought out was the worst of the six the Mississippi Senate passed."
The Black/Brown/progressive alliance had defeated 29 pieces of anti-immigrant legislation in 2007, and 19 such bills in 2006. But it broke down this year:
The 2008 legislative session was different, however. [Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance director Bil] Chandler describes three factions in the party -- the Black Caucus at one end, white conservatives hanging on at the other, and "liberals who will do whatever they have to do to get elected" in the middle.
When white Democratic moderates began caving in -- paving the way for the bill's final passage -- Chandler wrote a letter to Howard Dean of the Democratic National Committee, which concluded:
"State party leaders who "would go along to be accepted, rather than show the courage necessary for positive change... are peddling racist lies against immigrants that violate the core of the party's progressive agenda."
The bill is slated to go into effect July 1.